The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the exploitation of immigrant women in the nation’s food industry “one of the great civil rights crises of our time.” The organization's new report, released Monday, says the fields of California harvest many of the abuses.
As she addressed a small group of reporters gathered in Los Angeles, Southern Poverty Law Center legal director Mary Bower sought to stir this country’s collective conscience.
“Every one of us who eats in America – that is, all of us – is connected to these women," she said. "Every day, we accept the benefits of their grueling labor.”
For example, you may have eaten the strawberries picked by Maria Alonzo. She’s a 32-year-old undocumented woman from Oaxaca, Mexico who’s worked the fields of Ventura County.
“In harvesting the strawberry, we suffered the sexual harassment with the crew leaders," Alonzo said.
She held back tears. "They take the women in a room and have them by themselves.”
Like other women, Alonzo would not name her employer because she’s scared of retaliation.
Sexual harassment is among the many problems the Southern Poverty Law Center documented in its report "Injustice On Our Plates." Researchers spoke to 150 women who work in fields and meatpacking plants around the country.
“A number of the women who we interviewed talked to us about sexual violence and migration," the center's Monica Ramirez said. "They also shared with us that sexual violence in migration is so common that today women take birth control before they leave their countries of origin so that they do not get pregnant by their rapists in migration.”
The report focuses on the problems the estimated 800,000 women farm and poultry workers in this country routinely face.
For example, it offers statistics that indicate the average income of female crop workers is around $11,000 a year – compared to their male counterparts who average $5,000 more. It also found that the employers often refuse to pay the women directly, and write check to their husbands instead.
Alicia Vazquez said the Central Valley blueberry farmer she worked for paid less than minimum wage. The undocumented Mexican immigrant also recalled working full-time when she was 17 years old after the foreman encouraged her to get fake documents.
“The foreman hired me and asked me to cover my face so that the supervisor would not see how old I was," she said.
In many cases, immigrant women in the U.S. food industry face the same challenges as men: exposure to chemicals, inadequate access to drinking water and bathrooms, low pay.
But Christine Park-Gonzalez of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said women remain particularly vulnerable.
“We certainly know that there is a problem of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual violence in the fields in all these agricultural jobs," Park-Gonzalez said. "The only issue, of course, is that we need to get these women to come forward.”
She said most won’t report abuses because they fear their supervisors will have them deported.
The head of the United Farm Workers Union, Arturo Rodriquez, said Congress could help by passing pending agricultural legislation.
He said the legislation is designed specifically for farmworkers, "to give them the opportunity to come out of the shadows to give them legal status in the country so that they can also receive the same protections as any other worker in the United States today.”
But passage of that bill may be unlikely in a highly partisan environment where immigration remains a major dividing line between Democrats and Republicans.